The Atlanta Hawks entered an early afternoon contest in Boston on Saturday hoping to get a victory to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the Celtics. Playing on the road in Boston during the St. Patrick’s holiday weekend, however, is no easy task for any team in any sport.
The first half was a struggle defensively for the Hawks to say the least, with the Celtics putting up 74 points during the first two periods of play. Atlanta, who has been playing as well as any team in the league offensively since the All-Star break, produced 62 points in the half to keep the margin respectable.
A reserve unit of Jaylen Adams, DeAndre’ Bembry, Kent Bazemore, Vince Carter and Alex Len would use their energy and activity on the defensive end of the court to get the score back to within single digits early in the fourth quarter. Given that Boston had pushed to lead as high as 25 points in the third quarter, that was quite the accomplishment.
When the starters returned, they were quickly able to get the game to a tie score. But, in the final minutes, it was obvious that all of the energy required to get back into the game left the team on empty during the game’s final minutes. Eventually, the Celtics would secure a 129-120 victory.
Boston distributed the points in the first half. They used numerous actions to successfully attack the diminutive Trae Young. Though the Hawks would make an adjustment at the half to handle those actions differently, they were wildly successful in the first 24 minutes of action. Each of Boston’s starters had at least eight points and Jaylen Brown contributed 13 points off the bench.
In the end, Kyrie Irving led all scorers with 30 points. He also had 11 rebounds and nine assists and was the obvious offensive closer for the winning team.
Marcus Smart was the typical defensive agitator that he is, but he also contributed 16 points and nine assists. His entry into the starting lineup has allowed Boston head coach Brad Stevens to manage the offensive workload of Irving, who finished last season injured.
For the Hawks, Young and John Collins were again the players featured on the offensive end. Young had 26 points on just 18 shooting possessions. He connected on five of his eight three-point attempts.
Boston made Collins work for his 20 points. He was 7 of 19 from the field, missed on each of his three attempts from beyond the arc and converted six of his nine attempts from the free throw line. He had 11 rebounds, nine of them on the offensive end of the court.
The activity of Collins on the offensive glass was certainly a big part of what allowed the Hawks to be competitive in the game. Boston shot the better than Atlanta, but the Hawks had seven more field goal attempts, which helped keep the game in reach.
Taurean Prince had 17 points on 15 shooting possessions. He had a few nice moments in the game but, at other times, the third-year forward was seeing the correct read just a bit too late to execute on those plays.
Off the Atlanta bench, Carter had 16 points and Bazemore added 12.
Bembry and Len did not stuff the stat sheet, but they specifically brought excellent energy when their team was down big in the second half.
“The only thing I can rely on; who’s playing hard, who’s competing, who doesn’t care about anything than their personal pride and not being embarrassed,” said Hawks’ head coach Lloyd Pierce after the game. “I have found a group with Trae (Young), Jaylen (Adams), Vince (Carter), (Kent) Bazemore, I think Alex (Len) was out there. That just competed and we got stops and were able to score. You know, it’s about us. It doesn’t matter who’s on the court. At that point you just have to compete, and I thought our guys did and the guys that came back in took advantage of the momentum that we had. Tried to compete as well but they just made a better run the last four or five minutes.”
There were, earlier in the season, too many games in which the Hawks would get down by a significant number of points and just demonstrate no will as to try to fight back into the contest. Pierce seemed pleased with their response in this performance despite the outcome.
“To be down 20 in the third and to tie the ball game up. It’s a testament to the guys in that locker room,” Pierce added. “Young, old, whatever you want to call them. I think they’re doing a hell of a job of playing together and competing and that is all I can ask for.”
“We’ve been doing that a lot throughout this year,” Young said after the game. “We get down big and have to fight our way back into the game. Then we be in the game and we run out of gas. I think that’s what happened today, we just ran out of gas. I’m proud of the way we fought back to get into the game, but we need to get better at not getting into that big of a deficit though.”
A big missed opportunity was Atlanta’s inability to get to the free throw line in the fourth quarter. They reach the bonus with 8:34 remaining in the period and shot just five free throws the rest of the way. In fact, the Hawks had no free throw attempts during the final 5 minutes and 53 seconds of the game. If they had been more aggressive, and potentially had more situational awareness, it could have changed the way the final minutes of the game were played.
As the season has progressed, Collins has demonstrated more confidence in his face up game. Horford is no ordinary defender, but Collins comfortably converts the jumper.
Defensively, the Celtics rely on a switch-heavy scheme. Young gets switched onto Horford on this possession. He decides to back out for a long range three-point attempt that he converts. The perimeter shot was the appropriate decision considering how well Horford stays with smaller ball handlers when they attack with the dribble.
This may seem like an ordinary play but it is not. The Celtics were prioritizing Collins as the primary offensive threat, so Young and Huerter send him away from the play. They execute a rare 1-2 (PG-SG) dribble hand-off (DHO). They create a pocket and Huerter comfortably gets up a three-point attempt, which he is able to convert.
Easy points in transition are always useful, but what is noteworthy on this possession is the spacing the Hawks achieve. Earlier in the season, they would have players off the ball run too narrow to the ball handler and wouldn’t know what to do as a big man. Collins, in this case, is near the rim.
Here, the spacing is perfectly executed and the result is the Celtics being unable to manage the fact that they are outnumbered. Prince gets the easy layup.
This play offers a nice view of how the Celtics were prioritizing keeping Collins off of the rim. Notice how far Brown travels away from Bembry to “tag the roller.” The Hawks make the right play and Carter knocks down a three-point look from the top of the key.
This might be the most well-executed play the Hawks had in the offensive half court in the game, despite the fact it is a lineup of Collins and four reserves. “Make the extra pass” has been a mantra all season under the new coaching staff. Carter benefits again with a good look from the three-point line.
Here we see Young knock down a long three-point attempt in transition... one of the more exciting aspects of his game. In the same breath, there is a downside.
When Young knocks down a shot like this, smart teams are going to push the ball quickly back up the court. When they do so, the Hawks have to recognize what is happening, communicate, and get matched up.
The Celtics executed so quickly the broadcast could not even keep up. The result was an uncontested lay up for Tatum, giving back two of the three points they had collected on the other end.
This was the point in the game at which the reserve unit really started to bring the energy. The defense works together to create a turnover and Bembry gets the run out dunk.
Notice how quickly Len recognizes the opportunity. He sees the pass before he really has control of the basketball. Big men don’t do things like this unless they play for a team that practices at a very fast pace.
Another reason the reserve unit was successful was their patience in working for the simple play. Bazemore works through the pick-and-roll with Len and eventually the lane opens for a pass to Len, who gets the dunk.
This is another nice play by second unit. Pierce likes to deploy a trap in 2-for-1 opportunities (in this case, Boston is trying to use the clock to get two offensive possessions to the Hawks one offensive possession before the end of the period) and other specific situations. On this play, Bembry and Len use the trap to force a dead ball turnover.
Notice how proactively Bembry has to navigate the effort of Daniel Theis to separate him from Tatum. If he’s not working hard throughout the entire possession to maintain contact with Tatum, this play goes very differently.
Earlier, we looked at the face-up game of Collins. Here, we see him being trusted to facilitate in actions that Paul Millsap used the last couple of seasons he had with Atlanta, Collins is in the mid-post with actions and cuts occurring on the back side of the play. He connected with Bazemore with perfect timing to generate a score.
This possession offers a look at how the Hawks adjusted after the half on plays where Boston would try to attack Young. Notice how Bembry and Dedmon work together to both send help toward Young and still cover the edge of the restricted area. In addition, notice how all players off of the ball have at least one foot dropped toward the ball.
This adjustment was part of how they allowed just 55 points to the Celtics in the second half as compared to 74 in the first half.
The Hawks will travel to Orlando on Saturday night as to ready themselves for a match-up with the Magic at 6:00 pm ET on Sunday. This could be considered a “schedule loss” given that Orlando last played on Thursday night (at home) but matchups with divisional opponents are always interesting.